Nostalgia for ghosts

Shadows in the shape of the dead walked through my bedroom door. They'd then vanish, each dark phantom becoming the next.

Published August 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

As a small boy, I suffered from extreme fevers. They came like phantoms, burning through me, blurring my vision. They covered me in cold sweat, ridding me of food and liquid and waste until I was aware -- without the reserves of language or the ability to name my fears and feelings -- of a new kind of existence, an emptiness and lightness of body.

The fevers always began accompanied by fear and anxiety -- the same dread that animates dreams of falling -- at times so forceful that I thought I would suffocate, dying on an old, worn-out couch or on the cold bathroom tile. Once my temperature settled, though, topping out at 103 or 104 degrees, there was a sickly ease holding me, as if I'd stepped into another world.

High temperatures came first from the croup: deep, painful coughs like lightning strikes at the solar plexus, threatening to split me in half. Later there were middle-ear infections: buzzings in my head, the outside world muffled through antihistamines and painkillers. Then came bronchitis: a tightening in the chest, a lack of oxygen, mucus rising like an organic sludge from the bottom of my lungs until every sound from me came wrapped in a bubbling wetness.

Some of my clearest memories, existing with a near-photographic clarity untrammeled by the erosive nature of time, are of my mother holding me through long winter nights over a hot-running sink or bathtub as I stared blankly, dreamily, crazily at the dirt- and mold-spotted mortar between the tiles of the room. She would drape a towel over both our heads so that I would breathe only steam. In a sonorous, calming voice she would sing and shush as we rocked, until, miraculously it seemed to me, she had saved me from dying again -- a 30-year-old heroine in a tattered robe and shaggy slippers, the purple half-moons of exhaustion, of complete parental depletion, weighing down her eyes -- opening up my bronchi so that I could breathe, maybe even sleep. In the morning we would be at the doctor's office again, where both the horror and the strange magic of sickness would be temporarily destroyed.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I routinely saw ghosts during the heights of illness and fever. I stop on this memory. Surely it is false. But perhaps that is not the point -- truth or falsity. Whether the ghosts were figments or not, my visions of them, and my steadfast belief as a boy in the reality of these visions, were real, as truthful as anything I can think of, perhaps more so because of their force, the space they take up in my memory.

When the fevers came, I would lie nearly paralyzed by fatigue and a sort of slow-motion hysteria in my dark room in our small, brick house in Tidewater, Virginia. Crickets and frogs complained through the open windows. And I waited for shadows in the shape of the dead to walk through my bedroom door. Ghosts would stop, three paces in -- always three paces: one, two, three -- then vanish, each dark phantom becoming the next, like images bleeding together in a kaleidoscope.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

On Sundays, my family would go to the Methodist Church near our home, often walking there along the edges of cornfields, through a path in the woods, across vacant, overgrown lots. I didn't mind going to church then (though I stopped attending completely as a teenager, when I discovered alcohol and marijuana and what I thought of as the liberating sounds of the Sex Pistols and X, among others), because the stories of Christ and the apostles, of miracles and magic and the inexplicable, were usually interesting and well told.

One Sunday, after a long week of illness and fevers, during the season of Lent, when the church was filled with purple cloth and white flowers, I first heard, or first really listened to, the story of Christ rising from the dead. Though this was certainly the most intriguing story thus far at church, beating out even Job and his boils, or Moses parting the Red Sea or the burning bush, or Christ conjuring food and drink from virtually nothing to sate the hungry masses, what made it profound to me was that it explained the ghosts that I saw with every high fever. People, people who lived on the earth long ago or shortly ago, died and were buried; but then, because Christ made it so, they rose from the dead and continued living, many of them for some reason stopping by my room.

To my mother sitting beside me in the pew I said, "I can see people like Jesus."

She looked at me. "What?" she whispered.

"In my bedroom sometimes. There are people like Jesus."

"Sshh," she said, her hand resting heavily on my leg. "Don't say things like that."

A young girlfriend, Debra, the person I spent most of my time with on the weekends and in the summer, lived three doors down in a brick one-story on a quarter-acre grass lot identical, almost, to my family's. She was adopted, as was her brother. Her father went jogging one day. He was forty, overweight. It was one of those heat waves you expect in the South -- steaming asphalt, a weight to the sunlight, midday silences, mirages of water receding on the highways where the smell of melting rubber lingered. He had a massive heart attack on the sidewalk near my home. People came out, tried to help; paramedics were called. But it was too late. In a neighborhood where he had lived for nearly 15 years, a neighborhood in which real estate values were plummeting because of enforced busing, racial unrest and spiking crime rates against person and property, his heart had clenched tight as a locked jaw and quit.

I saw it happen. Or I think I saw it happen. In my memory there is a space reserved for the image of his collapsing: he is tying his shoe, then putting his ear to the root-cracked concrete to listen closely to a faint rumbling underground, then lying down to rest, to sleep.

Weeks later, after the funeral and the still silence of mourning that engulfed their house, I told Debra not to worry, that death was a door. People were still around, and mostly fine, and sometimes, when I was sick, I could see them. I buttressed my story with talk of God and Jesus, of Mary Magdalene, of the giant stone rolled away, of the empty tomb, the triumphant light of holiness and salvation. I now knew a story that could make everything better. I believed that somehow made me powerful, impervious to life's ultimate tragedies.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Getting off the bus one day -- I was seven -- I watched as a girl in a wheelchair, with a miniature body and a normal, adult-sized head, made as if to cross the busy highway just outside of our subdivision, where the bus dropped off the neighborhood kids on the wide sidewalks. The day was hazy, steamed up around the edges like a televised dream. The girl couldn't see around the bus -- a wall of yellow, the roar of cars. Probably she was mentally as well as physically impaired.

When the car hit her, she was thrown high into the air, coming down, lifeless, on the street's grass median. The bluntness of the moment was a shock, like a hammer to the face. There was something false about it. It lacked narrative, lacked the simple decency of making sense. It was nothing like TV. No swelling of triumphant or tragic music. No fog effects, or noirish shadows around the body, no commentators spouting irony or melodrama or some sophisticated mixture of both. No chalk lines to be drawn. No dissonant guitar chords, or quick cuts toward overly weighted symbols, or a darkening screen to pull it all together. I'd gotten used to death as it was presented by the experts, people who'd studied the science of human perceptions, who knew about narrative formulas and the mathematics of audience emotions. Now Debra's father and this -- what? midget? dwarf? -- Death happened in the blink of an eye; then it was over, a life expelled -- so simple as to seem degrading, the degradation so venal as to almost necessitate an afterlife.

The bus driver, a large woman with strange configurations of moles like stellar constellations on her face, sent all the kids away. Then there were cops, paramedics, a quickly forming crowd. Someone was shouting and shouting and shouting, but you couldn't understand any of it because the language was bent by panic, embroidered with loss, rising up and up and dissipating like factory smoke over our replicated homes.

At home, feeling numb and tingly, jarred and electrified, my spine fairly humming from adrenaline, still not quite believing what I saw to be real, I vomited. I couldn't tell my mother what happened. I couldn't find the breath, the right words. She heard about it from Debra's mother. She tried to cheer me up, to make me forget, with sweet talk and rubbing and promises of treats and cartoons.

I didn't go to school for the rest of the week, complaining, falsely, of an intense stomach ache, staring blankly at cartoons all morning (Wile E. Coyote dying and coming back, dying and coming back), running errands in the afternoon with my mother -- the beauty salon, the drugstore, the post office -- seeing, on the periphery of my vision, the dead girl rising up in shop windows. I noticed people in wheelchairs everywhere. I suddenly lived in a city of deformities -- something wrong with the air here, the water. I had a strange feeling that if I went back on the bus I would be sentenced to see something like that every day. I wondered if during the next fever the little girl -- or tiny adult -- would roll through my darkened doorway, the bent wheels of her chair squeaking and clanking.

But I did go back to school. Eventually I had to. My best friend there was a black boy named Barry Fox. He was the funniest, smartest kid I knew, a true comedian with timing well beyond his elementary years. He said things to kids like: "Your momma's so fat she leaves a ring around the pool." "Your momma's so fat she has to butter the bathtub to turn over." "Your momma's ass got its own zip code."

One Monday, early in the spring, Barry didn't come to school. He didn't come on Tuesday or Wednesday either. On Thursday he showed up again but didn't say anything. Finally, at lunch, he told me that his nineteen-year-old uncle, who lived with him and his mother and sisters in the Pine Chapel "projects," had been stabbed to death in a fight. I could tell he was about to cry.

Again, in an effort to console, I told the story about my power to see the dead when I was sick. I tried to reassure him by telling him about Christ's resurrection.

"What the hell you sayin'," he almost shouted. He was suddenly furious, telling me that I didn't know a thing about his uncle, or about Jesus, or about his family, or about black people, or about anything at all. He said that his dead-ass uncle wouldn't be let into my white-ass house anyway, dead or alive. He was right.

Then he told me he hated me. Then he did cry, right into his open hands.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I needed a fever to prove to myself that this was real, that I could see what I thought, what I believed, I could see.

But it was spring, harder to get truly, deathly ill when the weather was beautiful and warm. And -- both blessing and curse, I thought -- I seemed to be getting heartier, healthier; I was getting bigger and stronger, even good at sports.

I did have some close calls with fevers that spring, though.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I would often go over to the Drabbles' house. They were strict Southern Baptists. The father was a mechanic, as mean and quick to violence as any man I have ever been around; the mother stayed home with the nine children, ranging in age from four to eighteen. The children were not allowed to swim; the boys could not wear short sleeves or short pants; the girls wore floor-length handmade dresses and were not allowed to cut their hair, ever, their astounding manes cascading down below their waists. My family lived cramped in our small house with only four. They lived in a house considerably smaller than ours with eleven, which meant things tended to spill outside.

What spilled out of the house were the beatings. The father would take the boys out and beat them with his fists, rubbing their faces down into the dirt of the yard. The girls he would beat with a leather belt as he swung them around the yard by their hair or shirt or arm, each girl screaming at a slightly different pitch.

Usually, though, Mr. Drabble was not home weekdays.

I went to the Drabbles' because they were, due to the pressures of their strict upbringing, I imagine, the worst kids I'd ever known -- a whole new species of bad. The boys had pornographic magazines and shot BB guns at neighboring houses; they smoked cigarettes and drank stolen liquor in the woods. The oldest boy, who recently had a bullet shot into the door of his primer-colored El Camino "by a motherfucking spook," always had pot and an assortment of pills.

The other thing that spilled out of their existence into the yard, piling up in the backyard, was junk. A paradise of junk. Because the father was a mechanic, a poor mechanic, a do-it-yourselfer, a fixer-upper, he brought home old engines and minibikes and motorcycle parts and steering wheels and hood ornaments and tires and bent rims and smashed-in doors and washing machines and refrigerators and forklift parts.

One day, Rodney, the youngest boy, a boy who had learned much from his father, began throwing heavy hubcaps into the air, seeing if he could accidentally smash one of his sisters' skulls. One came down onto my head and knocked me nearly unconscious. It sounded like an alarm went off in my brain. Later, with my mother again tending to me, I felt nauseated, with a mild concussion, and I thought that perhaps a fever would follow. But, disappointingly, it didn't.

A few weeks after this, on a blustery afternoon after a large northeaster had brushed the East Coast, taking out trees and light poles and local fishing piers, some kids and I were playing during a church social and cookout with an army parachute, the origin of which escapes me, but I imagine it had made its way from Vietnam into some kid's attic. We devised a game. The wind was thunderous. The wind was an angry scream. You could let the parachute fill and it would tug several children holding onto the ropes along through a field, laughing and screaming.

The game was who could hold on the longest before the old parachute came to rest in a copse of trees. Being the winner of this game meant that I floated up over the field, up over the world, seeing broken bottles and abandoned tires and dog feces whizzing by beneath me, until, at a speed of ten or fifteen miles per hour, I went slamming through saplings and ultimately into a large pine tree.

For a moment, the wind knocked out of me, I felt close to death, nearly smiling to myself through my grimace and tears because I felt that nausea and vomiting, sure signs of a fever, were on their way. But I was seven, strangely able to shake off even the harshest physical traumas with nothing more than a good cry. I was eating Brunswick stew within the hour, singing Good News Bible hymns.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

When my mother was out of the kitchen I began sticking my head in the refrigerator, having heard that cold air on your head brought on sickness. I ate soap; I ate a whole can of years-old liverwurst I found in the back of my grandmother's pantry because I'd once thrown up after doing so on a dare. I tried eating my grandmother's chitlins (pig's large intestines, fried). Nothing, nothing; nothing. I feared I'd never see the ghosts again.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Summer evaporated. Fall arrived, with the sad news that we would be moving to a much nicer place, where only solidly middle-class white people lived. My father was going to stretch himself financially to get us out of this neighborhood, this city, and this school district that he believed were crumbling all around us.

Our impending move, our moving up in the world, was devastating news. I needed the fevers to see the ghosts; I also, I believed, needed the exactly perfect darkness of my bedroom in the hissing silence of night.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The first cold snap came with rain and wind. I was down the street at Debra's, who often asked me if I had seen her father. It wasn't for her, really, but for her mother, who no longer left the house, who just sat at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, drinking instant coffee, staring at the chipped Formica.

Rain tapped on the windows of Debra's room. Grayness coated everything.

I left their house and, through pouring rain and cold wind, walked through the fields near the church, out into the woods. I stayed there for several hours, praying. I didn't know how to pray then, not really, not in the way I would learn years later, when I was angry and unmoored and broken, but I gave it my best, most earnest try. I leaned against a tree in the weird bright darkness, shivering and soaked, asking God to make me sick, to make me almost dead, to show me one more time that life was not just this, not just simply this. I prayed until I heard my mother and father shouting, a bit frantic-sounding, from our backyard.

Within 48 hours, I had the flu, a middle-ear ache, and the beginnings of the most virulent case of bronchitis I have ever suffered through.

My fever spiked at nearly 105 degrees before dropping back to 102. I slept in an icy tub for an hour, dreaming of carousels and lawn ornaments and ladders and wild cats and my mother's voice miles and miles and miles away.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Then it was night again. I remained still in my bed. My head throbbed with every heartbeat. My mouth held the corroding taste of sickness. The darkness was perfect. I waited for Debra's father, or Barry's uncle, or the miniature, deformed girl in the squeaking and clanking wheelchair, or someone, anyone who had died, ever. I stared into the blackness. I leaned forward. Out my window, out in the real world, a car horn was bleating, and a dog was barking, and someone, somewhere, was falling asleep.

By Greg Bottoms

Greg Bottoms is the author of "Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks: Stories," from which this story is excerpted. It will be published in September. His previous book was "Angelhead: A Memoir," which will be released in paperback in September.

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